Posted on July 15th, 2018


The first mention of a national anthem for Ceylon, according to Haris de Silva, former Director, National Archives, was by J R Jayewardene. JR had brought the need for a national anthem to the notice of the Ceylon National Congress   on 26th June 1941. Accordingly, says D.B.S. Jeyaraj, a lyric was composed by D.S. Moonesinghe and set to music by Devar Surya Sena. This was sung in 1943 at the Congress sessions, but the national anthem remained ‘God save the king.’

Thereafter, when Ceylon was preparing for independence, State Council decided that Ceylon needed   a new national anthem, to replace ‘God Save the   King” which had been Ceylon’s ‘national anthem’ under British rule.The anthem was to be selected through a competition. Lanka Gandharva Sabha organized the competition. Competition was held on Jan 31 1948.  The Panel of judges consisted of S.L.B. Kapukotuwa, L.L.K. Gunatunga, Lionel Edirisinghe, P.B. Elangasinghe, O.H de A Wijesekera, and Mudaliyar E.A. Abeysekera.

Many compositions were considered for the national anthem. Among the entries were Namo Namo Matha by Ananda Samarakoon and Sri Lanka Matha Pala Yasa Mahima by P. B. Illangasinghe and Lionel Edirisinghe. Samarakoon was then in India holding an exhibition of his paintings.  Samarakoon’s wife and brother had submitted the song for the competition.  P. B. Illangasinghe and Lionel Edirisinghe won the competition but the public protested since Illangasinghe and Edirisinghe were on the panel of judges. So Namo Namo Matha was selected.

Ananda Samarakoon had composed Namo Namo Matha in 1940 as a patriotic song for Mahinda College, Galle. He was the singing teacher there. Vini Vitharana had been a student at Mahinda College Galle, at the time. He recalled that Samarakoon ‘got the boys to sing this song’.

The late Nihal Karunaratne, a medical practitioner in Kandy, had told Haris de Silva in 1996   that Samarakoon had presented one of his paintings to Nihal’s mother and on the back of the painting had pasted a paper cutting of an article published in the Sunday Times of 8th April 1962, where he had said that the song ‘Namo namo matha’ was composed by him in 1940 when he was a teacher at Mahinda.  He had composed it to instil patriotism in the students.

D.B.S .Jeyaraj elaborates further. Having returned from Santiniketan, on October 20th 1940 Samarakoon was at his ancestral residence in Padukka. He could not sleep. He got up at about 10 pm and began writing a tribute to his motherland relying on the short notes written after his air trip from India. Samarakoon wrote late into the night and Namo Namo Matha” was born. He then took it to Mahinda College where he was teaching and taught it to students after setting it to music.

The song became ‘famous’ after a 50 member choir from Musaeus College, Colombo sang it on a public occasion, said Jeyaraj.  It became popular   and was broadcast on Radio frequently. In 1946 Samarakoon   recorded the song for His Master’s Voice Gramophone Company.. Being a fine singer himself Samarakoon recorded the song with Swarna de Silva, the sister of flautist Dunstan de Silva.  It was released on HMV label and the record too became popular. The song was also included in a book of poems published by Samarakoon called Geetha Kumudini”. However, Samarakoon had been unable to re-imburse the printing costs incurred by the printer R.K.W Siriwardena and had given copyright to him.

Tissa Kariyawasam said Namo Namo Matha was sung at the 1948 independence celebrations by the students of All Saints Girls’ School trained by the Rev Fr Marcelline Jayakody (Sunday Island. 2.2.03 p 3). A Cabinet memorandum by Oliver Goonetilleke, dated 15th June 1951, had also said   that the anthem had been sung at the Independence Day celebrations of 1948.

A printed programme for the 1949 independence celebrations, which Haris de Silva   had seen,  had said that at the inauguration of the Independence Memorial Building at Torrington Square, the National Song would be sung in Tamil at 4 p.m on the arrival of the Prime Minister, and in Sinhala at 5 p.m. immediately after the Drill Display.

During the 1950 celebrations, at the morning event at Galle Face, the first bars of the National Anthem were played at the march-past. At the evening event at the Havelock Race Course celebrations commenced with the singing of the National Anthem in Tamil, and concluded with the anthem sung in Sinhala. In 1950, the High Commission in India had requested copies of the national anthem in Sinhala, Tamil, and English, along with the musical scores. Copies had been sent to India, said Haris de Silva

Haris de Silva states that Oliver Goonetilleke, then Minister in-charge of Home Affairs   had submitted a cabinet memorandum dated 22.11.1951 recommending Namo Namo Matha     as the national anthem. Sir Oliver therefore must be recognized as the Minister responsible for getting Cabinet approval for the song Namo Namo Matha as the National Anthem.

In this memorandum Oliver Goonetilleke stated that ‘Namo namo matha’ had been sung in Sinhala and Tamil at the independence celebrations. He attached a Tamil translation by K. Kanagaratnam, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Education, and two English translations by C.W.W. Kannangara ‘our representative in Indonesia ‘and by S. Paranavitane.  Cabinet wanted a ‘competent authority’ to revise the Tamil translation. This was done by K. Kanagaratnam. Cabinet had also wanted Sir Oliver to consult G.G. Ponnambalam, who had nothing to say on the matter. Cabinet made no comment on the English translations. (D.B.S. Jeyaraj gives a different version. I have given his version in the appendix.)

Goonetilleke had further said in the memo, that in the Sinhala version, there had been a suggestion to alter line 10, to read ‘nitina apa pubudu karan matha’, instead of ‘nevata apa avadi karan matha’. He said the song was originally selected to be sung on the occasion of the grant of Independence, but as we have now received independence, the change would be more appropriate.  Another suggestion he had received was to change ‘bavina’ in line 12 to ‘lesina’. Ananda Samarakoon had agreed to the change in line 10, but had said ‘bavina’ was more elegant than ‘lesina’. The Cabinet had agreed to the change in line 10 but had said to leave ‘bavina’ as it is.

The Cabinet gave its approval to the anthem on 11th March 1952.  A Press Communique was issued on 12th March 1952, saying that the Cabinet had approved the song Namo Namo Matha as the National Anthem, with copies of the approved Sinhala version, and its Tamil and English translations, together with the musical scores. The Tamil translation was the one by Kanagaratnam, and the English translation was that of Kannangara, said Haris. There is no Cabinet minute to indicate that the Kannangara translation had been approved.  Goonetilleke may have spoken with the other Cabinet Ministers and got their approval for it.

D.B.S Jeyaraj in his account says on March 12, 1952, the Government published huge advertisements in the Sinhala, Tamil, and English newspapers announcing that Namo Namo Matha” was the National Anthem. While words in Sinhala and Tamil were published in the Sinhala and Tamil newspapers respectively the English newspapers had Sinhala words written in English.

Namo Namo Matha featured as Ceylon’s official national anthem, for the first time, at the Independence Day ceremony of 4. February 1952.    (Island 9.2.2011 p 3 Midweek Rev) The music score was prepared by George Perry, an officer seconded from the British Army  and bandmaster of the newly created Army Band.    According to D.B.S. Jeyaraj, the Tamil version Namo Namo Thaye” was   sung in 1952 at Independence Day functions at Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee and Batticaloa Kachcheries. The Tamil version was also sung when Sir John Kotelawela visited Jaffna in 1954.

In 1952 a booklet was issued by the Ministry of Home Affairswith instructions as to how and where the national anthem was to be used. There were three versions, whole, abridged, and abbreviated versions. The booklet set out  with detailed instructions, the occasions where each version was to be used, and what verses were to be played on what occasions.   In cinemas, the first 13 bars were to be played before the start of a film.

In 1953 standards were set for the singing and playing of the national anthem. Different choirs and singers were rendering it in different ways, causing much confusion .There was no uniformity in the melody or manner of singing the anthem. Standards were needed.

A committee of 8 persons, including G.D.A. Perera, Deva Suriya Sena, Ananda Samarakoon, was appointed. This committee set out guidelines as to how the anthem should be sung and also defined the exact tune for it. The melody was a refined version of the original tune composed by Samarakoon. They decided on standards for indigenous, western and band performances. The band performance style was done by the Army Band and the western style was done by the   Radio Ceylon Orchestra. The Blind school, Seeduwa was selected for singing. The Blind School Choir was trained by Saranagupta Amarasinghe.

In December 1953, the Prime Minister and four other Ministers, J.R.Jayewardene, A Ratnayake, S Natesan & E B Wickremanayake, with six officials, and three members of the former Committee, with Saranagupta Amarasinghe on invitation, had met at Radio Ceylon to select a recorded version of the song. The Committee had decided to accept a) Ceylon Army Band version (b) Choral version by the Seeduwa Blind Children, and c) Radio Ceylon Sinhalese Orchestral version. The firm Cargills, then agents for HMV Records, was given the order to make records of the National Anthem.  The Blind School rendition, with Army Band playing, was recorded on HMV in 1954.

On June 24, 1954 the Cabinet formally endorsed the tune and singing of the National Anthem. The copyright of Namo Namo Matha” was acquired by the Government after the payment of Rupees 2500 on June 24, 1954. (Elsewhere the date is given as 1956.) But Samarakoon did not get the money. The money went to P.K.W. Siriwardene. Siriwardene insisted that he must be given the money as the copyright had been transferred to him.. Attorney General decided in his favor.

In the late 1950s a controversy arose over first line of the anthem, “Namo Namo Matha, Apa Sri Lanka“. It was said that the gana of ‘namo namo’ in the first line of the anthem was “unlucky” and was the cause of the country’s misfortunes including the deaths of two prime ministers.  The letter Na” at the beginning was described as a malefic..Minster T. B. Illangaratne, in 1961, proposed that the opening lines should be ‘Sri Lanka Matha,’ to conform with ‘gana’. He said that he had consulted many experts, including the sangha and they had agreed on the change.

In February 1962,  the government changed the line to their present form, “Sri Lanka Matha, despite Samarakoon’s strong opposition. This alteration upset Samarakoon. Samarakoon committed suicide in April 1962, leaving a note saying that his anthem had been mutilated.  Tissa Kariyawasam observed in 2003, that it was nonsense to say the first letter was inauspicious. ‘Namo thassa bagawatho’ also began with the word ’Namo ‘.

Then in 1978, the National Anthem was included in the Constitution. The 1978 Constitution (Article 7) states: “The National Anthem of the Republic of Sri Lanka shall be “Sri Lanka Matha,”, the words and music of which are set out in the Third Schedule.

Haris de Silva stated that the Sinhala version given in this schedule was the post-Ilangaratna 1962 version; the Tamil version was the Kanagaratnam translation. The Tamil version was included, said one source, following an appeal by K.W.Devanayagam. Devanayagam  had pointed out that Muslims and Tamils living in the north and east who spoke mostly Tamil wanted that version for use in schools and occasions.  The English” version is not the Kannangara translation issued in 1952. It is the Sinhala version given  in Roman script.

Sri Lanka Thaaye, the Tamil version of the Sri Lankan national anthem, is an exact translation of Sri Lanka Matha, the Sinhala version, and has the same music. It has existed since independence in 1948 but it was generally only sung in the north and east of the country where the Tamil language predominates, said Wikipedia.

The Sinhala version of the anthem is used at official/state events but the Tamil version is used at official events held in the Tamil speaking regions in the North and East of Sri Lanka. The Tamil version is also sung at Tamil medium schools throughout the country. The Tamil version was used even during the period when Sinhala was the only official language of the country (1956–87.

While the Sinhala version was sung in most official functions in Colombo and Sinhala majority provinces, the Tamil version was sung in Tamil majority areas and Tamil medium schools, confirmed Jayaraj. This accommodative attitude was displayed even after Sinhala was made the sole official language and Tamil had no official status at all. The Tamil version had been played at functions attended by Tamils in Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, and Batticaloa. The Sinhala version was played at functions attended by the Sinhala community, However when both parties attended, they avoided the national anthem and only played the tune.

There was a sharp difference of opinion regarding singing the national anthem in Tamil. Sinhala hardliners do not want the National Anthem to be sung in Tamil while Tamil hardliners do not want Tamils to sing the National Anthem in Sinhala, observed Jeyaraj. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike had walked out of a function in the north where the national anthem was played in Tamil.  This would have probably been in her first two terms of office 1960-65 or 1970-77.

The national anthem was sung in Sinhala and Tamil at the 50th anniversary independence celebrations in Trincomalee in 1998. Is this legal asked critics. (Daily News 10.2.1998 p    5,) On Sinhala New Year day 1999 at a ceremony in Kantalai they had sung it simultaneously in Sinhala and Tamil. This was been scoffed at. Where in the world do we hear national anthems being sung in different language asked one reader.

In December 2010 the Cabinet decided that Sri Lanka’s national anthem would only be in Sinhala. The Tamil version would no longer be played at any official or state functions. A directive to use only the Sinhala version was to be sent out by the Ministry of Public Administration. All government establishments including district secretariats will be called upon to adhere to this decision.

President Rajapaksa said there could not be two national anthems in a country. This position should be corrected. He said, “We must think of Sri Lanka as one country.” The national anthem should be a ‘national anthem’ not a communal anthem added a critic. Sri Lanka need not take the new nations such as Canada, New Zealand and South Africa as examples.

According to Jeyaraj, this ban on singing the national anthem in Tamil was thereafter shelved” but orders however went out quietly to government. Officials and officers of the armed forces that the national anthem should not be sung in Tamil. There was no official decree but officially sanctioned unofficial instructions resulted in the silencing the Tamil National Anthem, said Jeyaraj.

This unofficial diktat was strictly enforced. Schools and government institutions were discouraged” from singing the national anthem in Tamil. The armed forces in the North and East were tasked with the duty of preventing the National Anthem being sung in Tamil. The Tamil people soon got the message and gave up attempts to sing the National Anthem in Tamil. School children were compelled to sing the Sinhala words scripted in Tamil, said Jeyaraj

At three different functions at Kilinochchi, in 2010 army had stopped the singing of Tamil version. They ordered that the recorded Sinhala version be played and it was. They had also distributed the Sinhala version of the national anthem to schools and told them that in future they should play the Sinhala version, reported the media.

The pro-Tamil Yahapalana government of 2015 changed this. President Sirisena withdrew the prohibition on singing the national anthem in Tamil.   Soon after, on March 23  2015  at  a function  in Valalai in the Jaffna peninsula to return land taken over by the Sri Lankan armed forces to maintain a high security zone, the national anthem was first sung in Tamil and then in Sinhala. The music was played on tape while a choir from the staff of the Jaffna District Secretariat sang in both languages. This was in the presence of President Maitripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga,

There were protests. Permitting the national anthem to be sung in Sinhala and Tamil, as President Sirisena had done may be a violation of the constitution, said Ladduwahetty. According to Article 7 of the 1978 Constitution the national anthem cannot deviate from the words and music given in the schedule, and the words, are the Sinhala words. The national anthem must be sung in Sinhala at state and national functions. Article 7 enshrining the national anthem is a fundamental article which cannot be amended, repealed or tampered with, said Vernon Botejue.

Despite this, the national anthem was sung in Tamil at the Independence Day proceedings in Colombo in 2016, 2017, and 2018. It was sung at the end of the proceedings when many were getting ready to leave. Some greeted this gesture positively. The singing of the national anthem in Tamil was a gesture of reconciliation. It was a very significant act of the government to make the Tamils feel equal, said the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.  Others added, now Sri Lanka had joined South Africa, Canada, Switzerland, New Zealand and Fiji as a country having two national anthems.  Tamil separatists disagreed. ‘If Tamils thought that they had gained a status on par with the majority race they are wrong. Their relegation to second class was shown by the fact that the Tamil anthem was sung later at the ceremony, said one analyst.

Immediately after the 2016 event, the singing of the national anthem was challenged in Supreme Court as a violation of the constitution. A fundament rights petition challenging the government decision to sing the national anthem in Tami was filed. It should be sung only in Sinhala.

It is clear that there are two opposing sets of views on the matter of the Tamil anthem. One group firmly wants to see the anthem sung only in Sinhala. It is imperative to sing the national anthem in one voice not two, they said. A national anthem is a symbol of unity.  They dismiss the notion that Tamils cannot think of themselves as Sri Lankan when the national anthem is in a language that they cannot understand,

Why can’t the Tamils learn to sing the national anthem in Sinhala, asked one critic. If they are able to learn other language in the countries they live in now, why can’t they learn Sinhala? They do not ask that the national anthem of the countries they now live in be translated to Tamil so they can sing it with fervor and loyalty.

There was no demand from any Tamil in Jaffna to sing the National anthem in Tamils. It was not an issue, said Rear admiral Sarath Weerasekera. When I was the commanding officer of the Karaingar naval base in 1993 Tamils sang it in Sinhala at various functions.  Today the north is all Tamil, and they have with all impunity sung the national anthem in Tamil.

These critics point to India. In India the national anthem is sung in only one language. All Indians sing it regardless of whether they understand it or not. India stipulated that all schools in India have to start the day with the national anthem. India’s national anthem was originally a patriotic song  written in Sanskritised Bengali, by Tagore, later adopted as the national anthem. Even before independence the Bengalis had sung ‘jana gana mana’ at their rallies. The Bengalis played a significant role in the nationalist struggle, more than any other ethnic group. The Tamils did not play that kind of role in Sri Lanka.

A compromise suggestion has been made, to have a single bi-lingual anthem, with verses in both Sinhala and Tamil or at least have few lines in Tamil be incorporated into our national anthem. Including a Tamil verse in the national anthem will also help chauvinistic Sinhalese to remember that there are people other than the Sinhalese living in this country, said one critic.

Listening to the singing of the national anthem in either or both language is indeed a moving experience. It is most moving when it is sung in our mother tongue or both languages, said Devanesan Nesiah. We must voluntarily learn the national anthem in each other’s language, so we can all sing it together, said Rev Duleep de Chickera.

Those supporting the singing of the national anthem in Tamil have much to say. Here is a collection of their utterances:

  • People who insist that Tamil speaking people should be forced to sing the national anthem in Sinhala wish to demonstrate their superiority to the numerically weaker Tamils. They want to ram the Sinhala anthem down the throat of our Tamils speaking brethren, said one commentator.
  • The anthem says ‘eka mawakage….’ If we truly believe that we are the children of one mother we must provide the opportune for the Tamil speaking people to sing our national anthem in their mother tongue,’ said another.
  • A national anthem is meant to unite and that doesn’t mean singing it in one language in a multi language society where diversity is recognized and accommodated in the constitution. Accommodating the linguist diversity of our people increases loyalty, a sense of belonging and strengthens unity rather than threatens it. Accommodating diversity strengthens unity, said Harim Pieris.
  • What is wrong in letting them sing the national anthem in Tamil to the same tune? They would understand and sing with the same feeling.  For this land is as much theirs as ours. We must give the Tamils back their dignity.   It is only the racists, who object said K Godage
  • The Sinhala only national anthem was designed to divide rather than unite, to widen the psychological gulf the majority and the minorities and drive home the lesson that minorities are not so welcome interlopers in a Sinhala country. The anthem being sung simultaneously in two languages must be maintained and supported. There is greater chance of inculcating a sense of Lankan patriotism in Tamil/Muslim children when they are allowed to sing the national anthem in their own language rather than parrot it in a language they barely understand, said Tisaranee Gunasekera.

A whole bouquet of examples have been given to justify singing the anthem in Tamil. In South Africa, the national anthem of four stanzas is in five languages, Xhosa, Zulu, Swasotho, Afrikaans, and English. First stanza is in Xhosa and Zulu, tow lines each, next stanza in Sesotho, third in Afrikaner, fourth in ‘English,

Canada has English, French and a bilingual version. . The lyrics in the English and French versions differ in the Canadian anthem. In the bilingual version beginning and end is in English middle verse is in French. Canada has an Inuit version too.  The national anthem in New Zealand, the first verse in Maori and the second in English.

Switzerland’s anthem has different lyrics in each of the country’s four official languages (French, German, English, and Romansh). Fiji’ has lyrics in English and Fijian which are not translations of each other.  Spain has no words at all in its national anthem. The national anthem has been played without words since 1978,


D.B.S Jeyaraj says in 1950 the then Finance Minister JR Jayewardene presented a cabinet memorandum that the widely popular Namo Namo Matha” be formally acknowledged as the official anthem. Prime Minister D.S Senanayake set up a Parliamentary Select Committee under Home Affairs and Rural Development Minister Sir E.A.P Wijeratne (Father of Dr.Nissanka Wijeratne) to finalise the issue. The committee headed by Wijeratne considered Namo Namo Matha” and some other lyrics and decided that Samarakoon’s song should be made the National Anthem. There was however a minor hitch. The committee wanted a minor change in the words. Samarakoon was then in India and returned home in mid -1951 after being summoned by Sir Edwin AP Wijeratne. The song had originally been composed when the country was under the British.Now it was independent.It was therefore felt that the 10th line in the song was inappropriate and had to be changed. Samarakoon agreed to change the line. So the line Nawa Jeewana Damine” was altered to Nawa Jeewana Demine Nithina Apa Pubudu Karan Matha” with the wholehearted consent and approval of Ananda Samarakoon. Sir E.A.P Wijeratne then presented a Cabinet paper in August 1951 recommending Namo Namo Matha” as the National Anthem.

DBS Jayaraj sayd Premier D.S Senanayake proposed that a suitable Tamil translation  also be formally adopted.The select committee headed by Sir E.A.P Wijeratne had accepted in principle that there be a Tamil version  of the national anthem.The Tamil scholar, Pundit M. Nallathamby, was entrusted this task and a neat transliteration was done.The Tamil version came into use and was extensively used in official functions in the predominantly Tamil speaking Northern and Eastern Provinces. Prof K. Sivathmaby  also said, said that the  Tamil translation was composed by Mr. Nallathamby.

Jeyaraj says when a record was made of the nationl anthem, a disc was also cut for the Tamil version of the National Anthem. While the melody and music was the same as that of the Sinhala version by Ananda Samarakoon the Tamil words written by Pundit Nallathamby were sung by two women singers Sangari and Meena. The Tamil version was first broadcast officially on Radio Ceylon” on February 4, 1955.  (CONCLUDED)



  1. Hiranthe Says:

    Singing the national Anthem in Tamil is not a big issue.

    However, changing names of the ancient Sinhala villages and irrigation tanks to Tamil Names, creating separate laws such as Thesawalamei are the thing to object.

    Talking about discrimination and hard shift towards Tamils which are a fabricated lies are the things to stop.

    If Tamils feel a belongingness and have loyalty to Mother Lanka and are thinking as Sri Lankans, I don’t think it matters.

    But they have to prove that they have given up their mythical Tamil Home Land lie.

    But those names were already changed in the North and East. They are the things to correct. Let them be part of us and let us enjoy listening to the Tamil version.

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